The advent of global climate change and the needs of a growing human population requires agricultural practices to adapt to maintain food security. However, current practices, such as regenerative agriculture, require clear definitions and objectives to be harnessed and implemented successfully.
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The deterioration of global soil health and the need for regenerative processes
The advent of the agricultural revolution in the 18th century, which preceded the industrial revolution, vastly increased the capacity of exploiting arable land to produce food and maintain livestock.
Since then, the development of farming practices using improved technology as well as the ever-increasing spread of land required to sustain growing human populations has transformed landscapes around the world.
These transformations have impacted natural systems, the species they encompass, and the ecosystem services as well as the resources they provide. For instance, the degradation of the soil due to the unprecedented rates of farming has decreased soil quality and drained key nutrients from the soil around the world.
In recent decades, soil degradation has been observed over time particularly when considering carbon storage capacity, as carbon stocks have been declining as a result of factors such as the conversion of native landscapes to croplands and overgrazing.
In response, strategies have attempted to replenish and restore processes in soil systems. This has been a focal point of contention in regenerative agriculture, which helps soil regain its ability to store elements such as carbon as well as enhance the sustainability of food production.
Regenerative agriculture is typically described as providing a range of benefits for food production and has recently been considered more intently as a strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Indeed, a 2020 project using regenerative agriculture to increase soil carbon storage, known as Project Drawdown, claims “regenerative agriculture enhances and sustains the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves productivity—just the opposite of conventional agriculture,” with estimates that regenerative annual cropping could reduce or sequester 14.5–22 gigatons of CO2 by 2050.
Even bolder claims were made in 2016 by Kastner, saying that “regenerative agriculture… has the potential to reverse climate change”, adding, “we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture”.
However, claims are often perceived as exaggerated in recent studies on regenerative agriculture due to the fact regenerative agriculture lacks a clear definition and empirical evidence has yet to be collected demonstrating its prowess within a sustainability framework.
The growing need for a consensus and the implementation of practices
In a 2020 study by Shreefel et al., researchers reviewed existing studies that claimed to use practices of regenerative agriculture in an attempt to provide a clear scientific definition. After reviewing 28 studies to find similarities or dissimilarities in objectives and practices, the scientists were able to provide a clearer definition of regenerative agriculture.
The team states regenerative agriculture is an “approach to farming that uses soil conservation as the entry point to regenerate and contribute to multiple ecosystem services”, and shows that it focuses on the enhancement of the environment and stresses the importance of socio-economic dimensions that contribute to food security.
However, another study by Peter Newton et al., also attempted to provide a definition of regenerative agriculture, this time reviewing 229 journal articles and 25 practitioner websites.
This more comprehensive review showed there were many definitions and descriptions of regenerative agriculture, which were based on processes (e.g., use of cover crops, the integration of livestock, and reducing or eliminating tillage), outcomes (e.g., to improve soil health, to sequester carbon, and to increase biodiversity), or combinations of the two.
From a policy standpoint, the study discusses how diverging definitions may confuse policymakers and stakeholders, and provide broad trajectory-based unclear objectives. This uncertainty is of concern due to the expected impacts of climate change, the continued degradation of soil systems, as well as the growing risks of food insecurity.
The paper concludes that despite the clear lack of a consensus, it is essential for individual users of the term “regenerative agriculture” to define it for their own purpose and context-based upon existing studies. This would limit the lack of clarity that sometimes surrounds regenerative agriculture.
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The umbrella of regenerative practices and future implications
Despite the lack of definition, practices often referred to as regenerative agriculture most often include no-till agriculture, where farmers avoid plowing, and use of cover crops, which are plants grown to cover the soil after farmers harvest the main crop.
Other practices encompassed may also include diverse crop rotations with 3 or more crop types over several years as well as the use of livestock grazing within rotations to provide natural sources of fertilizer. However, other practices including reduced fertilizer or pesticide use are also often termed regenerative agriculture depending on context and study.
The main objective of these approaches is more consistent across studies, as they aim to improve organic matter retention, nutrient cycling, and production, in soil systems. In turn, this improves the role of soil to act as a carbon sink as well as increases water-holding capacity.
Both these outcomes are directly related to the effects of global climate change since the drawdown of carbon dioxide emissions will help limit greenhouse gas effects, and better water retention will improve the maintenance of soil quality in times of drought, erosion, or extreme weather events.
Adopting practices of regenerative agriculture have therefore become a pivotal approach in mitigating the effects of climate change, but also helps farmers address current environmental changes, making food production more resilient and adaptive.
- Balmford, A., Amano, T., Bartlett, H., Chadwick, D., Collins, A., Edwards, D., Field, R., Garnsworthy, P., Green, R., Smith, P., Waters, H., Whitmore, A., Broom, D. M., Chara, J., Finch, T., Garnett, E., Gathorne-Hardy, A., Hernandez-Medrano, J., Herrero, M., . . . Eisner, R. (2018). The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming. Nature Sustainability, 1(9), 477–485. doi:10.1038/s41893-018-0138-5
- Newton, P., Civita, N., Frankel-Goldwater, L., Bartel, K., & Johns, C. (2020a). What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4. doi:10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723
- Newton, P., Civita, N., Frankel-Goldwater, L., Bartel, K., & Johns, C. (2020b). What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4. doi:10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723
- Schreefel, L., Schulte, R., de Boer, I., Schrijver, A. P., & van Zanten, H. (2020). Regenerative agriculture – the soil is the base. Global Food Security, 26, 100404. doi:10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100404